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The Spy Who Hung Her Laundry

1800s | August 8, 2019

During the Revolutionary War, Anna Strong sent coded messages...via her clothesline. Source: (amc.com)

The most effective spies are the ones that don't appear to be doing anything suspicious at all. They look as though they are going about their normal lives. During the Revolutionary War, when the British held New York City, one patriot woman hung her laundry to dry on her backyard clothesline alongside many other women doing exactly the same thing all over town. The only difference was that the items she hung on the clothesline were part of a secret code, and she was passing along valuable information simply by doing her laundry. Let's look at the story of Anna Strong, the spy who hung out her laundry.

Actress Heather Lind portrays Anna Strong in TVs TURN: Washington's Spies. Source: (amc.com)

A Long Time Long Islander

Anne Smith Strong's family had been in the New World for several generations when she was born in 1740. They had claimed land on Long Island in New York and built a large manor house on a point overlooking the bay. Anna lived in this house with her husband and children when the Revolutionary War broke out. 

September 1776: British-Hessian troops under the command of General Howe parading through New York. Original Artwork: Engraved by Habermann Source: (weaponsandwarfare.com)

A Houseful of Redcoats

When the British seized New York City, Anna's husband was jailed as a minuteman, and British officers moved into her manor house. It was common at that time—and a huge source of annoyance among the patriots—for British military officers to force families to provide shelter and food for them. Alone with her children, Anna Strong had no choice but to let the British stay in her home. Even with the British so close to her, she was able to do her spying without any of them growing suspicious. 

George Washington's Culper Spy Ring sought to get information on the British troops occupying New York City. Source: (biography.com)

Passing Along Secret Information

George Washington's famous Culper Ring, a system to spy on the British in New York, provided him with important information about the movement of the British, the supplies they had, and the plans they were making. Once a week, one of the spies rowed a whaleboat past the British ships and into New York to retrieve the information and take it back to General Washington. The information was hidden in a small wooden box placed at one of five designated spots, each one hidden in a cove off the bay. But which cove?

Anna Strong's manor house gave her an ideal vantage point. Source: (womenhistoryblog.com)

A Prime Location

Anna Strong's manor house was in the perfect spot for her to see all five of the coves. By just strolling around her yard on a designated day and time, she could determine which one of the five coves held the hidden box of spy secrets. Anna could signal to the spy in the whaleboat that the information was ready to be picked up and even tell him which cove it was hidden in.

A painting by Elizabeth Mary Weber shows Anna Strong's clothesline code. Source: (elizabethmaryweber.com)

A Laundry Code

Anna Strong's backyard clothesline was strategically located on a point facing the mouth of the bay. When a message was ready to be retrieved, Anna let it be known by first hanging up a black petticoat on her clothesline. The black petticoat was the signal that the whaleboat spy should come into the bay. After that, Anna hung out white handkerchiefs. Each one of the coves was numbered, so all Anna had to do was to hang out the corresponding number of handkerchiefs on her clothesline. One white handkerchief meant that the message was waiting in cove number one, two meant cave number two, and so on.

In time, the patriots defeated the British to reclaim New York City. Source: (pinterest.com)

The British Never Found Out

Because there were British troops living in her home, Anna often hung out her coded laundry while being watched by British soldiers. None of them were ever suspicious about her activities. Why would they be? It was rare for a woman to engage in such dangerous activities, to begin with, and all she was doing was something that women all over New York were doing: hanging their laundry out to dry. Thankfully, washing machines were still a good century or so away, or we'd all be talking British right now.

Tags: Anna Strong | spies | Revolutionary War

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.